Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

5 Reasons Christians Give Bad Advice

5 Reasons Christians Give Bad Advice

A couple of months back I posted a miscellany of bad advice offered by Christians. Most of the examples in that article weren’t singular or specific, but common enough to be heard from more than one source. This, I argued in my second article, is a major reason why so much advice shared among Christians is unhelpful: it’s recycled, impersonal, and platitudinal.

In what will likely conclude this series on advice, I want to outline a few five more reasons why I believe Christians tend to trade in bad advice. These reasons aren’t arranged in any particular order, and no doubt overlap slightly.

1. We Hide Behind Caveats

“Look, I’m not telling you what you should do,” “take this advice with a pinch of salt,” and “this is just my two cents.” I’m sure you’ve heard other—and very likely have your own—caveats tied to the offering of counsel and advice. But by couching our advice in these sorts of qualifications we fail doubly. First, we lack the integrity to stand by the advice we’ve been asked to give. Second, we love ourselves and our reputation ahead of the person seeking counsel.

Tied to this problem is the broader issue of hiding behind the related spheres of wisdom and conscience. Referring to something as a ‘wisdom matter’ doesn’t excuse you from the consequences, nor does couching your advice in caveats. Only, the realisation that your counsel might have real world implications shouldn’t cause you to never offer it. Rather it should promote much more care, discernment, and thoughtful listening.

2. We Ignore the Worldview Assumptions of Advice

Advice often resembles the Old Testament character of Melchizedek. It appears out of nowhere, without lineage, tribe, or origin (Hebrews 7:3). Just like we can’t trace Melchizedek’s beginnings, a lot of conventional Christian advice seems to have simply materialised. And now it lives and moves and has its being by mere virtue of its existence. Thus we don’t theologically examine advice, probing its assumptions along with the worldview behind it.

For example, quite a few readers asked me why I thought suggesting having a few extra drinks on the night of your honeymoon is bad advice. Of course, God doesn’t prohibit drinking alcohol. Wine gladdens the heart (Psalm 104:15), and at other times it can fulfil practical functions (1 Timothy 5:23). Both of those texts seem applicable in the case of using drink to take the edge off on honeymoon night. But upon reflection, the advice to get a little tipsy is bad because it doesn’t alleviate the tremendous pressure—typically on the woman—-to have sex that first night. It compounds the pressure, with the assumption that newlyweds simply must consummate their marriage post haste. But they don’t. This isn’t 16th century Tudor England.

3. We Confuse Conservative Culture with the Faith

Related to the previous point, we aren’t always clear in our own minds if the advice we’re offering is biblically informed or culturally conditioned (though we’ll never escape the latter). This is perhaps especially true for conservative Christianity or Evangelicalism. The areas of sex and politics are obvious examples. Aspects of our Christian culture are very often mere artefacts of another culture. Like the British museum, many of these were smuggled in years ago and their heritage is now rightly contested.

One of those cultural artefacts I’ve written various articles on is the matter of mixed-sex friendships. Another pertains to conversations about modesty, which are regrettably exclusively aimed at women. We must thoughtfully examine our advice before delivering it, always asking ourselves whether it is nothing more than the thoughts of a bygone era.

4. We’ve Prioritised Professional Bible Teaching

In most churches it’s the pastors who have the most to say. They preach on Sundays, take membership classes, catechise, and teach doctrinal courses. Thus it’s only natural for those in the church to turn to their pastor when in need of Christian counsel. But aren’t there other mature believers in your church who know you and your situation better than your pastor?

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t turn to your pastor. Nor do I think they they can’t offer personal and contextual advice. In fact, I genuinely hope they’re able to. This is, after all, fundamental to shepherding. My point is rather that there should be other Christians in your community who’re able to speak into your life, offering timely and wise counsel—i.e. good advice.

We must be very careful that we don’t reduce church to great teaching and preaching—I can point you to countless YouTube channels and podcasts if that’s what you’re after. Furthermore, if the only person who can specifically apply theological truth to your life is your pastor, then I’d suggest you work harder at your Christian friendships and community. Ultimately we don’t need professionals but personal and particular advice.

5. We’re Fooled by Aesthetics

Finally, we love a catchy phrases, pithy statement, or punchy truisms. While these make for great Facebook posts, they’re usually terrible advice.

For example, in my miscellany I quoted the bad advice concerning the questions around compatibility and marriage: “Just pull your pants down. Do you see different things there? Then you’re compatible.” Yes, it’s humorous, arresting, and a little risqué. It’s also probably responsible for countless difficult marriages and even a few divorces. Similarly there’s the ‘Romans 8 treatment,’ which offers nothing more than trite comfort in the form of a paltry platitude.

I’m sure most of us have heard the old chestnut, “Don’t go to church. Be the church.” This remark is about as vapid as it is misleading. Firstly, God expects us to go to church. Secondly, at a fundamental level, church isn’t something we ‘do.’ It’s something God does and we gratefully participate in. Thirdly, read Ephesians.

“True Liberty of the Conscience”

Without over-applying myself to incorporate it into the five reasons above, it seems fitting to me to conclude this post with a paragraph from the Westminster Confession of Faith.

“God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are—in anything—contrary to his Word, or which—in matters of faith or worship—are in addition to it. Therefore, anyone who believes such doctrines or obeys such commands out of conscience betrays true liberty of conscience. The requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, destroys both liberty of conscience and reason” (20.2).

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